February 22, 2017

TO: Assembly Committee on Jobs and the Economy

FROM: Tom Still, president, Wisconsin Technology Council

RE: Autonomous vehicles

The Wisconsin Technology Council wants the state of Wisconsin to be a leader in the testing, development and use of autonomous vehicles. It is a position long held by the Tech Council and reflected in our public events, communications and policy reports in recent years.

It’s up to the Legislature to decide whether and what type of legislation is needed to advance the testing, development and use of self-driving vehicles in Wisconsin. Our main hope is that Wisconsin becomes one of a relative handful of states where autonomous vehicle innovation is advancing without regard to a particular technology, design or pre-supposed conditions about what works and what doesn’t.

The road to technological innovation is strewn with the wreckage of ideas that were declared “the best” or “irreplaceable” by their inventors, only to the surpassed by better ideas that came along later. Wisconsin should be agnostic as to what types of autonomous vehicle technology will win the race.

We simply hope part of that race takes place here … in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin has always been in the driver’s seat when it comes to innovation around machines that move on roads, waterways and farm fields.

Wisconsin “firsts” include the steam-powered automobile (1871), the automobile race (1878), the motorcycle (1880s), the gasoline-powered automobile (1889), the steel automobile frame (1899); the gasoline-powered tractor (1901); the four-wheel drive automobile (1908); a commercially successful outboard gasoline engine for boats (1910); the speedometer (1912) and robotic welding for vehicle frames (1963).

A century or more ago, however, there were plenty of people in Wisconsin who cringed at the thought of all those horseless carriages, motorized bicycles and boats buzzing about. And yet, it was precisely that kind of innovation that built a signature part of Wisconsin’s modern economy – and which can be repeated today with an aggressive welcome to autonomous vehicles.

Self-driving or autonomous vehicles have been under development for years. They’re essentially “smart” vehicles that sense the environment around them and navigate without human input through use of radar, laser technology (Lidar), global positioning systems and other computer visioning. Benefits include lower accident and injury rates, greater energy efficiency, reduced infrastructure investment and improved mobility for people who otherwise can’t – or shouldn’t – drive.

From buses to farm equipment, and from trucks to passenger cars, virtually every manufacturer is developing self-driving vehicles knowing it’s only a matter of time before they become commonplace. The opportunity for Wisconsin exists through several avenues:

  • Despite the loss of major auto assembly plants, the state is home to a number of automotive suppliers and more specialized manufacturers, such as Harley-Davidson, Johnson Controls, Rockwell Automation, ABB, Oshkosh Corp. and Pierce Manufacturing.
  • The insurance industry in Wisconsin, with American Family Insurance being a notable example, is already closely monitoring and even investing in the future of connected or autonomous vehicles.
  • Wisconsin is a state heavily engaged in trucking, both to move goods and as a home for major carriers. With the trucking industry scrambling to find enough drivers, it may make the move to autonomous vehicles sooner than most. The reasons involve interstate trucking routes and the payback for economic investment.
  • Wisconsin researchers already have expertise and skin in the game. The UW-Madison Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, home to the traffic safety lab, has noted that autonomous vehicles “have significant potential to improve the quality of life and meet the goals of shared prosperity.” Those same researchers said an open door to autonomous vehicle testing “could bring significant new research opportunities… and new businesses, including startups and tech companies, to Wisconsin.”
  • The potential for such vehicles has been hailed by advocates for the elderly and disabled, by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and by many highway safety groups. It could become a tool in the effort to maintain Wisconsin’s road system within budgets.

The release of the new Federal Automated Vehicles Policy in late September makes it clear that Washington will keep a “hands-off” attitude when it comes to telling automakers and others how to proceed with the development of autonomous vehicles.

That’s good news in this sense: Industry and technology will continue to take the lead in developing these vehicles and related systems, not the federal bureaucracy.

It also means state governments can expect latitude to promote innovation around such vehicles and the supporting infrastructure while ensuring driver and public safety.

Today’s informational hearing is a sign that policymakers in Wisconsin recognize the opportunity presented by the advent of autonomous vehicles. The Tech Council stands ready to assist as this important development unfolds.